Thursday, July 24, 2014

SAIGON (1948)

Leslie Fenton, 1948
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Douglas Dick, Luther Adler

At the end of WWII, three soldiers decide to stay in the East after Major Larry Briggs learns that his close friend, Captain Mike Perry, is on death’s doorstep, thanks to a terminal brain issue after head wounds suffered during the war. Instead of telling Mike the truth, he and Sergeant Pete Rocco decide to give Mike a hell of a farewell party – a few happy months before his death. To fund this, they take a flying job from Zlec Maris, a sleek, charming businessman who may not be entirely on the up and up. At the time of take-off, Maris is nowhere to be seen and the three former soldiers are stuck with the lovely, but icy and discreet Susan. When Maris shows up being pursued by policemen and gun fire, they take off without him. Though Susan is in a hurry to locate her boss, she has a briefcase full of suspicious money and he blackmails her into sticking around, because Mike has fallen hard. Though Susan and Larry bicker at first, Susan’s good-nature and sympathy wins out. But though she pretends to love Mike, she only has eyes for Larry.

The last of four collaborations between Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, Saigon can only be described as film noir in the loosest possible sense, though it is usually lumped in with their other three noir efforts, This Gun for Hire, The Glass Key, and The Blue Dahlia. Though the plot is essentially about a dirty businessman pursuing his ill-gotten quarter-of-a-million dollars, he is only briefly in the first and third acts. Most of the story focuses on the contentious relationship between Lake’s Susan, a smart, attractive, no-nonsense secretary carrying around a briefcase full of money, and Ladd’s Major Briggs, a tough-as-nails former soldier hoping to show his dying friend a good time.

The film is better than it should be, thanks solid performances from Ladd and Lake, but it suffers from some pretty blatant racism, Mike is cloying and two-dimensional, and the plot wanders around aimlessly for a while. Though the print I watched was from a VHS tape and looked fuzzy and awful, there was still some nice scenery, particularly the depictions of the lush Vietnam. While there are shots of rivers, rice fields, and more, I wish Saigon was more of a presence in the film. Similar to Macao and Calcutta (also with Ladd), it’s fairly obvious this was filmed on a sound stage, but that’s the best you’re going to get in 1948 Hollywood. Considering that this is Ladd and Lake’s final collaboration and one of Lake’s last films for Paramount, it’s fitting that it ends on such a somber note – at Mike’s funeral in Saigon, a particularly lovely cemetery set.

There are some frustrating plot elements that are difficult to overlook. First, Susan is presented as intelligent and self-sufficient. She is the only member of the group who can speak Vietnamese and is not afraid to travel on her own. It’s frustrating that the script didn’t show more of this aspect of her character, which is quickly overwhelmed by the back-and-forth and bickering with Ladd’s Larry. There is a scene where he expresses his dislike for her so much that he makes her leave the hotel and find a room on a boat by herself. He immediately turns around and has to search for her, because Mike pines and wonders where she went. It’s this sort of sloppy writing that holds the film back from its full potential and serves to slow down the pacing.

One of my biggest pet peeves in early Hollywood cinema – and thus with this film – is the casting of Caucasian actors as Asians: Peter Lorre in the Mr. Moto series, Warner Oland in the Charlie Chan films, Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy in The Mask of Fu Manchu (though I love the film), Gale Sondergaard in The Letter, and so on. While Luther Adler’s Lieutenant Keon is, thankfully, a decent, kind-hearted, and resourceful depiction of a Vietnam detective, it doesn’t change the fact that Adler is obviously a white person playing yet another generic Asian detective.

Saigon is not available on DVD, though you aren’t missing much. It’s worthwhile for fans of Ladd and Lake, and anyone interested in WWII or post-war era adventure cinema.

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